Thursday, 23 January 2014

Keating Recalled

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Russell “Kidneys” Seppelt was one of the most influential members of the Keating cabinet during a momentous time in Australian political history. As Minister for Allergies he was responsible for many important reforms, including the Pollen Act 1994; but it was as Keating’s close friend and confidante that his presence was most keenly felt. In this extract from his soon-to-be-released autobiography, Shooting From The Kidneys, Seppelt reveals some of the secrets of the Keating inner sanctum.

What many people don’t realise is just how insecure Keating was, as a man. I still recall the day he became Prime Minister in 1991: he rang me that night in a blind panic. “What the twat am I going to do, Kidneys?” he sobbed. “I have literally no cocking idea what a Prime Minister does.” He was in quite a state. I told him to calm down and breathe into an electric coffee jug – this was an old technique we used to use for relaxation – and said I’d be right over. I brought with me Robert Menzies’ famous book How To Be A Prime Minister, and I remember a long, hard night of studying. We were exhausted by morning, but it was worth it: Paul Keating was ready to be PM. During the next few years, keen observers during Question Time or press conferences would’ve noticed Paul glancing down at a book before answering some questions: the book was my copy of Menzies’ masterpiece. Sometimes people ask me if I regret giving the book to Paul, suggesting that had I kept the book I might have been Prime Minister myself. To them I say, what’s more important, the Prime Ministership or friendship? So far answers are coming in at about fifty-fifty.

Of course, Keating grew into the role – there were some teething troubles early on. I remember one cabinet meeting where he declared his plain for a national sausage scheme. “No child should ever be without a sausage!” he thundered, becoming quite emotional. He handed out photocopied drawings of sausages he’d done himself to us all, and put up an overhead projection of a happy child eating a sausage. His scheme would have involved government workers delivering one sausage to every child in Australia every morning. I think it was Dawkins who raised the first protest, pointing out that the cost would be prohibitive. Paul replied that the sausage scheme would be fully funded by a tax on big-game hunting. This produced a long and awkward silence in the cabinet room, broken when Kim Beazley asked whether sausages were really a priority. This made Paul furious: he hurled a yardstick at Kim’s head and called him an “obstructionist vulval wart”. That was the first of many times in the first couple of years that we were forced to shoot Keating with a tranquilliser dart for his own safety.

Of course, little did we know that years later the Liberal Party would resurrect the national sausage scheme but call it the “GST”. Just another Keating idea that the Libs now claim as their own. It’s getting ridiculous really. Recently I even heard Tony Abbott claiming that he is an “adult”. Well now, it was Paul who came up with the whole idea of being an adult, in his famous Pennant Hills speech. Shameless.

Anyway, Paul got better and better. I like to think I had some small part in his improvement. The turning point, I think, was late 1992, when I sat him down for a heart-to-heart. It was following a particularly bad press conference, when Laurie Oakes had caught him on the hop with some pointed questions about his recently announced plan to bomb Antarctica. He just wasn’t across the policy detail at all: he couldn’t even remember why we needed to bomb Antarctica, despite having been briefed on it the day before. As a consequence he had begun rambling, dragging the press conference out for four hours and ending up in an obscenity-riddled rant against Princess Diana.

Afterwards he was disconsolate. I found him at the Lodge, sitting in the garden in only his underpants, firing his service revolver at possums while Annita brought him tumbler after tumbler of lemonade. I sat with him for a while, listening to the breeze in the trees and the screams of the stricken possums, and eventually gave him the pep talk I felt he needed. I told him, you are Paul Keating. You’re the man who re-organised the entire Australian economy, who revolutionized politics in this country. You’re the man who took Hawke to the top, and then brought him down again. You’re the man who stayed up all night drinking champagne out of strippers’ shoes and still managed to electrify the United Nations General Assembly with a rousing speech on wheat embargoes in the morning. You’re the man who survived eighty days alone in the Gobi desert living off spider monkey meat. You, I told him, can DO this.

From that moment on, he was a new man. The steel returned to his eyes, he went off the lemonade cold turkey, and in our frequent late-night chats he seemed excited about politics again.

Of course Hewson helped. “Kidneys,” Paul once confided to me, “when I look at John Hewson I feel like a feral dog looking at a three-legged sheep. This strange mixture of hunger, excitement and sexual arousal. I just want to leap on his back and bite his throat out.” After one unfortunate incident at the Midwinter Ball, we agreed that Paul should only do so in a figurative sense, and he did it very well.

The 1993 election campaign was a glorious time. It seemed like anything was possible, and the spirit of freedom was running rampant. At one point Ralph Willis rode naked on a horse down the main street of Albury and nobody seemed to care, such was the fervour for democratic debate in the community. I played my own modest part in our victory, of course, coming up with the idea of bombarding Hewson with prank phone calls and live animals in his letterbox: many people believe this was tipped Hewson over the edge into madness and secured our majority; I couldn’t possibly say for sure, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Nobody gave us a chance in that election: Glenn Milne famously declared that if Labor held onto power he’d put his penis inside a porcupine. We thought it was just a drunken boast as usual, but he was as good as his word. Less gracious was Michelle Grattan, who after tipping against us went into a huff and sat in a campervan outside Labor HQ for three weeks, throwing oranges at anyone leaving the building.

The victory party was magnificent. Paul made an excellent speech before breaking into a blistering rendition of “Mama Weer All Crazee Now”. I remember going to the toilet halfway through the night and finding Laurie Brereton and Ros Kelly in a half-dressed embrace. Graham Richardson was squatting in the corner clad only in a leopard-skin pouch, and the three of them just stared at me as I entered. Eventually Laurie beckoned me with a finger and I excused myself. The evening ended up with the entire caucus in a conga line down Oxford Street, kicking homeless people as we went along and finally collapsing in a sweaty heap outside an all-night kebab shop. Of course in those days the press was discreet and didn’t report on things like that.

But after 1993 things changed somehow. Paul seemed jaded and restless. Often he would talk wistfully to me of wanting to travel, of yearning for the Alps and wanting to hunt a chamois before he died. In Question Time he seemed distracted: when a backbencher asked him how the Australian government was helping keep Australian families strong and prosperous, he said, “by eating out your mum” – and didn’t even remember saying it afterwards.

I think Downer did it for him really. A man who loved the thrill of the chase and the roar of the cannon, it was difficult for Paul to get enthused about beating Downer, who in his first interview after becoming Opposition Leader told The Australian that his hobbies included failing and crying like a girl. Paul tried to get his bloodlust up: during one parliamentary debate he even shot Downer with a crossbow; but the passion was gone and he was spending more and more time in his workshop, building life-size wooden marionettes that he claimed would one day be able to take on almost all the regular duties of the Australian Defence Force.

When John Howard took over the Liberal leadership the writing was on the wall. Howard’s first public statement simply consisted of him holding up a glossy doctored photograph of Paul French-kissing Idi Amin, and it all went downhill from there. The voters had stopped listening to Paul, and everywhere he went people would yell insults at him, throw garbage, and in several cases bite his legs. His announcement of a $70bn fund to pay single mothers to learn beekeeping fell flat, drowned out in the news cycle by Howard’s admission that he had tried heroin. He refloated the sausage scheme, but cabinet again rejected it. Probably the lowest point came at the 1996 campaign launch, when the planned opening act – Nick Bolkus’s human cannonball performance – backfired horribly. It didn’t help that immediately afterwards an obviously drunk Con Sciacca took the stage and denied the Armenian genocide before vomiting on Annita’s face.

Defeat came as no surprise, but in many ways it was a relief, I think, to Paul. “I’m finally free,” he told me in an emotional encounter the next day. “Free to pursue my first love,” he added cryptically, holding up a single tennis shoe and a large yam. We shook hands and he wished me luck in my next endeavour (see chapter eight, “Nancy Sinatra and Me”). Then he leapt aboard his Vespa and sped away down Anzac Parade.

Opinion is of course divided on Keating’s time as Prime Minister, but I think he was a force for good. His introduction of the Veal Tax streamlined fiscal policy enormously, and he helped open up Australian society and prepare us for the twenty-first century with his important social reforms, including his Mandatory Public Nudity laws, and the legalisation of being Asian.

But of course to me he was more than just a Prime Minister. He was a friend, a confidante, a steadfast comrade in arms. I like to remember him, not as the statesman bestriding the world stage, but as the gentle man stroking my hair as I fell asleep in tears after the 1994 World Cup Final.

It’s now been 17 years since Paul Keating was reported missing. I can only wonder where he is now. Anyone with information on his whereabouts should contact police on the number printed on the back cover of this book.

This article is from the King’s Tribune Summer 2014 magazine, which includes an exclusive extract from Tim Dunlop’s book The New Front Page and articles from Brocklesnitch, Amy Gray, Jo Thornely, Stephen Herrick, Mat Larkin, Upulie Divisekera and many others. The full list of articles and contributors is here

You can buy the limited edition paper copy here Subscribers will received a $5 discount (select Summer Issue 2014 from the drop down membership list, available only until sold out) or the Kindle version here.

Ben  Pobjie

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